A Dystopic but Prescient Perversion, Landmines as a Reflection Not an Antidote
I'm always keen to receive an invite to Ovalhouse, where the wooden furniture in the café and the comfortable sofas in the lounge make me feel at home. Also, if there were a perfect way to start the short walk from the underground to the venue, Oval station would master it. Going up the escalator towards the exit, I was welcomed by triumphant classical music, shelves filled with books for the commuters to exchange them, a notice board with an inspiring quote of the day and several plants all around.
As a part of a major regeneration scheme, last year the venue was granted a new sustainable and fully accessible purpose-built home in Brixton, which is due to open in spring 2018. Initially called Oval House Theatre and active since the 1930's as a learning and leisure centre, it has built a reputation for fostering social and political initiatives that promote diversity and inclusion. A research and development platform for emerging playwrights, dedicated LGBT events and a focus on pioneering fringe companies are some of the staples in their busy programme.
The 200-seat main auditorium is currently hosting Phil Davies' Landmines, a dystopian depiction of the current social climate, developed in partnership with The Bridge Company. Established in 2008, The Bridge is a training initiative that offers 18 and 19-year olds the opportunity to remain in education at The BRIT school for an additional year, whilst building the necessary skills to produce their own work. During a month-long workshop, Davies and director Emma Higham collected opinions on what really matters to young people and allowed the participants to contribute directly to the final piece with their personal talents. This is the case for Denneil Dunbar, who wrote and performs the speech that is one of the major turning points in the play.
The plot follows young teacher Vida – played by the powerful Imogen Fuller – during an unsettling time in her life where, as if running through a minefield, she attempts to dodge several threats to her physical and mental integrity.
Appearing in the opening scene composedly sat on a chair, under a spotlight, wearing ripped blue jeans and an oversized burnt-orange sweater, she starts talking of the lump in her throat that wouldn't let her breathe. Instantly, we are projected into her recent past, when, failing to comply with the deportation measures promoted by her school under the British Values and Traditions policy, she's forced to quit her job. Then, unable to pay her rent, she's evicted from the flat she shares with a group of antifascists, who promptly replace her with a more submissive new recruit.
No amount of glacial tweaking could ever fix this ridiculous establishment
Struggling to cope with the stream of violence broadcasted by the media and the pressure coming from her peers, who use Snapchat as a public shaming tool, an increasingly hysterical Vida fantasises brutal responses to a society whose attitude is reflected by the editorial line of an alt-right webzine. Scenes from The Altar's all-grey newsroom intersect with the main storyline, as we assist to the defection of a young journalist who has been assigned, by his chief editor, a piece on the rising crime rate during Ramadan.
Max Perryment's strong sound effects contribute to the apocalyptic feel that urges the main character to move forward in a desperate attempt to find validation for her own existence. Ultimately, though, Vida's strive for action is too extreme and leads to isolation and a blind rage that ends up hitting indiscriminately the same victims of the civilisation she's trying to revolutionise. 'Vida accepted there would be some good people lost,' – she says to herself in one of the final scenes – 'but she knew it was worth it. No amount of glacial tweaking could ever fix this ridiculous establishment. It had to go.'
Ryan Dawson's multi-levelled set facilitates the frequent shifting of scenes and helps to separate the main space from the lateral section, where are located The Altar's headquarters and the four journalists are visible throughout the play. The structure – which resembles a huge box – allows the actors to gain a vantage point or create shadow effects behind its semi-transparent walls. It also offers a suitable surface for opening video-collage that hits the public with many familiar stills – a police car, Boris Johnson, an ambulance, the riots, Nigel Farage – before showing the fatal assault to an unnamed MP.
In an informal chat, Davies and Higham explained that, despite being only a few days before its first anniversary, this echo to the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox is a mere coincidence. Also coincidental are the references to Ramadan – which is currently on – and the press night scheduled on the same evening of the General Election.
Davies – who earned critical praise during the West End transfer of his first full-length play FIREBIRD – wrote Landmines to depict the most extreme views of our modern society, rather than to suggest an antidote to radical views. However, during one of her most heated speeches, Vida urges her left-wing friend 'to have conversations with the ones that don't agree' rather than seek approval from the converted.
With a fresh and convincing 13-strong cast, that doesn't hesitate to take a personal touch on stage, Landmines is a poignant representation of the world we live in, with its cultural distortions and current perversions. Under this light, although it could feel dystopic, the play is meant to resonate for its symbolistic value, rather than as a realistic portrait.
Landmines by The Bridge Company is at the Ovalhouse until Saturday 24th June 2017
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